How I Finally Learned To Put The Phone Down Around My Kid
It's simple, but it's not easy
The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at TheForum@Fatherly.com.
My wife and I are not super-parents. We’re pretty awesome but not super. “Super” is probably my dad, who came over from Italy when he was 18 without knowing any English (beyond “Please” and “Thank you”) and then brought his parents and several siblings over. And then started an interior drywall company by himself. And then took care of my mom, my 2 brothers, my sister, and me until cancer took care of him when he was only 61. “Super” is probably my wife’s dad, who flew nighttime combat missions in Vietnam. (And my wife’s mom, who was married to a seemingly forever-on-duty fighter pilot and had 3 toddlers at home. Three toddlers. Ugh.) But Dana and I are solid. According to me. At least we didn’t need anyone to tell us to keep our cellphones out of family time.
The warning stories have been unavoidable. “Five Reasons Why Cellphones Are Bad for Your Health,” “The Worst Place to Store Your Cellphone,” “How Cellphone Use Can Disconnect Your Relationship” — to hear the mainstream media apparatus tell it, cellphones are vile and dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.
Well, they pretty much are.
But keeping our phones out of the scant time that Dana, Apollo, and I have together hasn’t been easy, perhaps because the warning stories have become so ubiquitous that they’ve been reduced to mere white noise. Is it our fault or the media’s for our growing insensitivity to helpful information? And what about tragedy? Why do many of us continue scrolling past yet another story of yet another school shooting or rouge police officer, yet another terrorist attack, yet another senseless act of violence?
I blame my wife and me for our moments of weakness. I blame me for exerting a negative influence on us. For negatively influencing me, I blame my day job, which has me working seemingly nonstop. When downtime deigns to grace me with its presence, I don’t want to do anything. Anything. Other than turn my brain off. And maybe scroll, scroll, scroll … (Guess I should have thought about that before having a kid.) I imagine that if not for my on-the-ball daughter-of-an-Air-Force-colonel wife, she and I would probably be hovering in Al and Peggy Bundy territory.
As an empath and someone who allows environments and circumstances to affect him perhaps to a ridiculously intense extent, I am never able to maintain any semblance of emotional, intellectual equilibrium. Everything, from a rude greeting from a coworker to news of another national/international tragedy, can knock me off balance.
Last week was when I first noticed that Dana and I had begun slipping. Our circumstances were in flux. My recently laid off wife was waiting to hear about a job offer through a friend. Of course, when one person pulls out her cellphone, the people around her instinctively reach for theirs. As Dana, Apollo, and I were sitting at the dinner table the other night — the dinner table, the closest to a sacred space that a house can get — my wife’s phone dinged. As she reached for her device, I reached for mine, not thinking of the unspoken message we were sending our son, still sitting there, still eating, undoubtedly registering every flip of our thumbs subconsciously. And that message is that while you, little boy, are important, you are not more important than the information on your parents’ dumb phones.
That message is that while you, little boy, are important, you are not more important than the information on your parents’ dumb phones.
We do not need any research to tell us that distracted parenting — and distracted communicating and distracted problem-solving, distracted living — is harmful. Intellectually and even physically. “How to Avoid Text Neck Overuse Syndrome” is another news story I recall skimming recently (probably while on my phone at dinner). The first thing I thought was: People have been reading printed material for, literally, centuries, an act that involves lowering your gaze, correct? Why aren’t there any scolding column inches about the dangers of holding books, magazines, or newspapers below our noses? Do Pynchon and William T. Vollmann novels come with warnings?
Simple. Unlike cellphone usage, reading is essential. Especially for the little ones. Dana came across a staggering statistic the other day: Black and Hispanic third graders who are unable to read at grade level are at a high risk of not graduating high school on time. Though I keep reading a lot on my phone — and not all status updates or in batches of 140 characters — I made a compromise with myself: Along with no phones at the dinner table or during playtime, no phones in the family room. Books, however, are always welcome. And now someone’s finally putting a huge dent in Gravity’s Rainbow.
Going phone-less doesn’t mean we don’t use our phones for family fun. Like taking pictures. We don’t post them anywhere. I’ve always felt — and my wife firmly agrees — that posting pics of your kid online is like bringing him to a dive bar on the outskirts of town. Plus, it’s a little show-offy. Photos and videos of our son do exist, and they come from somewhere that’s not the NSA. Just because our phones are in another room doesn’t mean that my wife and I are incapable of retrieving them in time to capture one of Apollo’s amazing block super-structures or awesome booty-shaking breakdowns.
The pics of our son are seen only by family. I don’t mind showing off to the parents/grandparents, brothers, and sisters. I’ve earned the right to overload them with cuteness. The rest of the world, despite the occasional protestation to the contrary, does not care.
We may never reap a single qualifiable benefit of going phone-less, but if a parent knows better, he or she should do better. Don’t be like the people in a 2015 study by Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. For “The Effects of Mobile Device Use on Immediate Child-Caregiver Interactions,” Radesky unleashed several “undercover investigators” upon Beantown’s fast-food joints to look for adult-child groupings with more than one youngster. Proceed to the next paragraph with caution.
“While caregivers exhibited varying degrees of absorption,” she writes, “those who had high absorption, meaning the mobile device was their primary focus of attention and engagement, appeared more likely to respond harshly to the child — for example, raising their voice, speaking critically to the child, or even getting physical with the child.”
Don’t be like these monsters. In terms of parent-to-child interactions. (And in terms of nutrition, but that’s another story.) Instagram or Candy Crush Saga or, unless you’re on call, even work can always wait.
Anthony Mariani, editor of and art critic for the Fort Worth Weekly, a regular contributor to the Fatherly Forum, and a former freelancer for The Village Voice, Oxford American, and Paste magazine, recently finished writing a memoir that is obviously “too real, man!” (his words) for any U.S. publisher, reputable or otherwise. He can be reached at email@example.com.